Tommy Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, dropped to the floor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board room last week and ripped through his morning push-up routine, as a video camera recorded a state political icon exercising in his stocking feet.

“Thompson flexes muscle,” read the headline on a video posted by the newspaper in its Aug. 8 online version. “Senate candidate, 70, knocks out 50 push-ups.”

The comeback trail for Thompson winds through a landscape foreign to a Republican accustomed to working with Democrats. The politics of confrontation now dominate Wisconsin, as Tea Party-backed Governor Scott Walker sparked and then survived a recall battle prompted by curbs on public employee collective bargaining. The state will be even more in the spotlight now that Mitt Romney has chosen Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House budget committee, as his vice presidential running mate.

Vitality is not the issue for four-term governor Thompson, who started the national welfare-reform debate by requiring able-bodied recipients in his state to find work and served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. In Wisconsin, a state whose motto is “Forward,” the political rebuttal to Thompson and his more than 40 years of public service is “backward.”

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